Tea Parties Clash With School Boards

Here is an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal;

YORK, Pa.—Trying to plug a $3.8 million budget gap, the York Suburban School District, in the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania, is seeking to raise property taxes by 1.4%.  No way, says Nick Pandelidis, founder of the York Suburban Citizens for Responsible Government, a tea-party offshoot, of the plan that would boost the tax on a median-priced home of $157,685 by $44 a year to $3,225.  “No more property-tax increases!” the 52-year-old orthopedic surgeon implored as the group met recently at a local hospital’s community room. “If you don’t starve the system, you won’t make it change.”

Fresh from victories on the national stage last year, many local tea-party activist groups took their passion for limited government and less spending back to their hometowns, and to showdowns with teacher unions over pay in some cases. Now, amid school-board elections and local budgeting, they are starting to see results—and resistance.  In its budget proposal for the 2011-12 fiscal year, the York district has already axed noontime buses for half-day kindergarten kids, halved money for teaching supplies and raised the fees for driver education to $300 per student from $50.  District parent Sarah Reinecker told the school board she would be willing to pay more taxes. “Starving education is the last thing that makes long-term economic sense,” she said.

Legions of tea partiers continue to focus on the federal budget and debt ceiling. But many are following the strategy of other rising political movements, such as the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, and seeking representation on school boards. They are flooding this spring’s board elections, and creating an unusually long lineup of candidates in places like York County. Dr. Pandelidis’s group is fielding five candidates in May’s election and hopes to win a majority on the nine-member board.

From Lisbon, Maine, to Rockford, Ill., tea-party groups are arguing, sometimes successfully, against more property taxes, which in many communities largely go to public education. They say schools already spend too much on extras unrelated to core learning and that staffs are bloated, and they challenge the idea that smaller class size equals better instruction.  Schools are under the microscope on every issue. Members of the Maine Tea Party attended a recent town meeting on the school budget in Lisbon to protest a budget proposal that could raise property taxes to deal with a shortfall. Tea partier and district parent Thomas Barry, 51, said one local school had drafty windows, forcing the school to keep the heat too high.

“Two weeks ago, I went into the school to get report cards, and it was 90 degrees inside,” he said. “I was peeling off clothes left and right.”  School districts say they are already cutting deeply and need more help from taxpayers. The York Suburban district gets just 13% of its revenue from state and federal funding; the rest comes from local property taxes, and state aid could decline further under budget cuts proposed by Pennsylvania’s new Republican governor, Tom Corbett.  “It’s like they are saying: Cut at any cost—we don’t care about the service level and how it’s affected,” said Dennis Younkin, finance director for the York Suburban school district.

The Peoples Tea Party of Jacksonville, Fla., beat back a proposed increase in teacher pay. After learning in February that the Clay County school board planned to raise salaries 1.5%, the group urged supporters to call school-board officials and attend the meeting where the raise was to be considered.  “A lot of people are laid off. Why would the teachers look at this and think it’s OK?” said retiree Mavis Caplinger, co-founder of the Peoples Tea Party.

The board voted 4-1 against its own proposal, which had come after months of negotiations with teachers. Board chairman Frank Farrell said he worried that the budget of Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, which contained education cuts, would make the raises unaffordable. He said he wasn’t influenced by the tea party.  “Baloney. I know it had an influence,” said Clay County Superintendent Ben Wortham. He said the proposed contract contained union concessions that would have resulted in annual savings offsetting much of the pay increase.

In Rockford, Ill., on the other hand, local tea-party coordinator David Hale says the battle between Wisconsin’s governor and public employees has energized teachers in Rockford, about 20 miles south of the Wisconsin border, and created an “uphill battle” for his group.  In school-board elections in early April, none of the candidates endorsed by the Rockford Tea Party won, while two of three candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union did—even though the tea party’s pre-election media blitz linked property taxes to teacher pay the party said was exorbitant.  “I honestly believe people don’t buy that story,” said Karen Bieschke, of the local teachers union. “They don’t see anyone getting rich being a teacher.”

In Pennsylvania, the York 9-12 Patriots has a dozen candidates running for school boards, and has formed local offshoots, such as Dr. Pandelidis’s group, to monitor local budgets. Next, reversing the movement from the federal to the local level, they plan to scrutinize state and federal school spending.  At a recent meeting, York 9-12 members ticked off their list of school waste: too much technology; too many teacher aides; federally subsidized breakfasts. “Parents should feed them at home. No one pays for my children to eat,” said group founder Lee Ann Burkholder, who home-schools her children.

Dr. Pandelidis argues that more spending doesn’t lead to better results. While per-pupil spending has steadily risen, 11th-grade math and reading scores fell last year, he notes. District officials say that the scores don’t reflect the entire student body, but that they are reviewing the 11th-grade curriculum.Dr. Pandelidis recently gave the board a petition with 500 signatures opposing any property-tax increase. The board had been weighing a 4% increase and backed down to 1.4% “because of the political climate,” says Mr. Younkin, the finance director.

Sounds like this battle is here to stay!

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